Then I received a phone call from Hall of Fame college basketball coach Dale Brown, who stumped me with a North Dakota sports trivia question. He asked, “Who were the two North Dakota-born coaches whose teams won the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship?”
I quickly answered Lute Olson, but completely drew a blank on the second person. After a few clues, he finally needed to tell me: “Jud Heathcote,” who I had no idea was born in this state.
In 1979, his third year at Michigan State (MSU), Heathcote guided his team to the finals at Salt Lake City, where the opponent was the Indiana State Sycamores. The Sycamores, led by Larry Bird, went through the season undefeated and were 33-0 at the time. The MSU Spartans, led by Ervin “Magic” Johnson, were 26-6 on the season, but the Sycamores were odds-on favorites to win the game. It was the most-watched televised college basketball game in history, and MSU won the game 75-64.
Heathcote was not a one-year wonder, but rather established an incredible 24-year college coaching record of 420-273. He was named NABC Coach of the year in 1990 and was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1978 and 1986. Heathcote produced seven All-American basketball players, 11 college and two NBA coaches, and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
Magic Johnson credited Heathcote for making him into the man and player he became. He wrote that Heathcote “was a great man and basketball coach who truly cared about me on and off the court… he pushed me in the classroom and coached me hard on the basketball court. I love him so much because he pushed me to be great… he made me a better person, player, and champion. He turned a young kid into a man.”
George Melvin Heathcote was born on May 27, 1927, in Harvey, to Marion and Fawn (Walsh) Heathcote. Marion taught agriculture and was the school’s coach, and Fawn was a school teacher. When George was 3 years old, his mother gave him the nickname of “Jud” because his brother, who was a year older than George, had difficulty saying his name.
Later that year, both Jud’s father and his infant brother died when diphtheria swept through the community. After struggling for two years, Fawn realized that she could no longer adequately care for her three young children, two of which were preschool age, while continuing to teach. Consequently, she sent her children to Manchester, Wash., where they would be cared for by her parents. This all occurred at the height of the Great Depression, and the $90 a month that Fawn earned as a teacher was required to pay for her children’s needs.
Manchester was located in western Washington, across Puget Sound from Seattle, and the two communities were linked by ferryboat transportation. Jud’s grandfather worked for the ferry company as a checker.
When Fawn was reunited with her children at Manchester, she continued to teach, but the family was still very poor. To help their family out, Jud and his brother, while still in elementary school, earned money from neighbors by digging and clearing brush. When Jud was in the eighth grade, he got a job hauling water for a local construction company. In high school, he spent the summers working as a recreation supervisor for federal programs.
ARCHIVE: “Did You Know That” columns
Jud was first introduced to basketball in the fifth grade, and he admitted that he was not very good at it, but he practiced every chance he had to improve his skills. When he was in the eighth grade, there were only five boys in his entire class, so they were the team. In their first game, they played the junior high school team of a rival school. They beat them 32-2, with Jud scoring 30 points, and he realized that he had some talent in sports.
Jud attended South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard and starred in basketball, football and baseball. In basketball, he was a first- team, all-state player as a senior, and during his last three years in high school, his baseball team went 41-0 in regular season play, which is still a school record.
World War II was in full bloom when Jud was a senior in high school, and he believed that he would be drafted after he graduated. To avoid that, he and other seniors decided to take the Navy V-5 test to become fighter pilots. Jud was the only one of the group to pass the exam, and after he graduated from high school in 1945, he was sent to the Montana School of Mines in Butte. In 1946, he was transferred to Colorado College, and when the war ended, he had a choice to either re-enlist for three more years or be discharged in six months, and Jud chose the latter.
Following his discharge from the Navy, Jud enrolled at Washington State where he planned on getting a teaching degree allowing him to also become a coach. While growing up, Jud said, “I always wanted to be a teacher and a coach… I really think it was from the memory of my dad.” He added, “I couldn’t even talk about my dad without crying.”
At Washington State in Pullman, Jud played basketball for the Cougars under head coach Jack Friel, but he didn’t start because he developed a blister on his foot that hindered his mobility. Jud graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical education in 1949, but stayed an extra year to work on his teaching certification.
In 1950, Jud was hired to be the head coach and social studies teacher at West Valley High School in Spokane, Wash. West Valley was the smallest school in the conference and never won more than two basketball games a season until Jud arrived. The principal was about to drop the basketball program from the school when Jud promised him a conference championship. He delivered on that promise and West Valley had a respectable basketball record for the 14 years that Jud remained there.
In 1964, Jud resigned from West Valley to work on his Ph.D. at Washington State. Marv Harshman was the head basketball coach at the college and when Jud enrolled, Harshman named him as his assistant varsity coach and head coach of the freshman team.
During his five years at Washington State, Jud’s records with the freshman teams were 22-0, 21-1, 22-1, 19-1 and 15-6. Believing that he had accomplished all he could at that level, Jud accepted the position of head basketball coach the University of Montana in Missoula in 1971.
We will continue the Jud Heathcote story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.